Tour Confidential: Would peak Tiger Woods be as dominant in 2018 as he was in his prime?

January 15, 2018 conducts a weekly roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and GOLF Magazine. Check in every Sunday night for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com.

1. Zach Johnson said last week that he’d “love to have these young guys that are dominating the game have a piece, just one year of what we experienced” when it comes to facing a vintage Tiger Woods. When you consider the wealth of talent at the top of the game today, would peak Tiger be as dominant in 2018 as he was in his prime?

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine (@JoshSens): Ah, the old grill room hypothetical. Fun to ponder. Impossible to know. I believe there’s no way he could dominate as thoroughly with the depth and breadth of talent on Tour today, a new generation and a new breed of athlete that, of course, Tiger helped inspire. It’s tempting to romanticize the past (golf is especially good at that) but reality suggests that any player from any bygone era (Palmer, Nicklaus, Faldo, you name them) would have a much tougher time winning today. I suspect Ben Hogan in the flesh would be hard pressed to win a major in this modern era, and the outrage that comment will inspire in some quarters just further underscores my point about the romantic stuff.

Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: I beg to differ, sir: knowable! Tiger, could he play as he once did, would dominate now as he did then. There has likely never been a putter even close to Tiger, circa 2000. He drove the ball better than Johnson, he hit irons better than Sergio, he was mentally tougher than anybody since Hogan with the exception of Nicklaus.

Sean Zak, associate editor, (@sean_zak): Yes. In fact, he might even be more impressive. As Josh says, it’s a hypothetical, and in this case, peak Tiger would still be the best player in the game above JT, Spieth, DJ and Rory or Rahm by a long shot. When “peak Tiger” wouldn’t play, sure, they’d pick up victories, and I think that might spur on “peak Tiger” to play even more events. It’s fun to think about, especially a “peak Tiger” playoff vs. driver-wielding DJ.

Joe Passov, senior editor, GOLF Magazine (@joepassov): Well, yes — and no. I think peak Tiger would win as often in 2018 as he did in his prime, just not by such huge margins. He would lap the field as often as not, partly because of his length off the tee, partly because he had no weakness in his game and partly because of his supreme killer instinct. However, he thrived in an era where shortish hitters could compete pretty well — guys like Jim Furyk, Justin Leonard and Scott Verplank. These days, pretty much everybody that’s top 10 is huge with the driver, and most of them are pretty handy with the short game. Better, more forgiving equipment and improved physical conditioning has helped close the gap between the elite and the next 10 to 15.

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): Yes, especially at the majors. People are already forgetting how insanely great Tiger was. Zach knows.

Bamberger: Exactly. The most underrated golfer in history is Tiger Woods.

2. Phil Mickelson makes his 2018 debut at this week’s CareerBuilder Challenge, and for the first time he begins a calendar year with a caddie not named Bones. At 47, with his brother, Tim, on the bag full time and now four years removed from his last win, what can we expect from Lefty in 2018?

Sens: He’s still capable of winning in any given week. It would be silly to think he doesn’t have any thrills left in his bag. But will he win the week of the U.S. Open? Methinks no. And at this point, when we talk Phil, we aren’t really talking about any old tournament. We’re talking about events he could add to his legacy.

Zak: He’s definitely good enough to win, but we can’t expect it. In fact, I don’t think it will happen. Sure, it’s no fun being a pessimist, but the guy simply is too wild with his driver, and my intuition tells me his all-world ball-striking will fade as Father Time continues to wear on his body.

Passov: In a way, Phil is more dangerous than he’s been in a while because he’s a bit under the radar. His own expectations might be what they’ve always been, but ours aren’t. It would almost feel like a shot of nostalgia to see Phil in the hunt and winning again, even though he’s never really gone away. With his ailments in recent years, however, I don’t know that I’ve expected too much and am pleasantly surprised when he plays great. What I see in 2018 is Phil and Tiger feeding off each other, making a successful, Federer/Nadal-like comeback that tennis witnessed in 2017.

Shipnuck: Same as the last few years — lots of mediocre play, some flashes of brilliance. But whether it’s physical or mental, Phil just seems incapable of putting together the four consecutive strong rounds required to win.

Bamberger: I think he’ll win this year and there’s no reason he cannot win at Shinnecock.

3. In an interview with The Telegraph, Rory McIlroy revealed that he suffered a viral infection in China a year and a half ago, which left scar tissue and caused a thickening of his heart’s left ventricle. McIlroy also said that he’s firing on all cylinders as he kicks off his 2018 in Abu Dhabi this week and that he’s ready to start winning majors again. “I don’t fear any of them. Any one of them,” he said of his rivals. “I’ve beaten them before.” Where’s your McIlroy Meter these days?

Sens: Where do I get one of those McIlroy Meters? My new iPhone doesn’t seem to have one. I believe in taking a man at his word until his actions prove otherwise, so his confident talk alone is enough to make me bullish on him. As for the fear thing, zzzzzz. Has anyone feared anyone since peak Tiger? Doubt it.

Zak: I’m so over the Rory Revenge Tour. It’s become cliche to “expect a big year” from him since he’s shown flashes but not won a major. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a phenomenal player when he’s clicking, but there has (rather consistently) been something different missing from his game at various points the last three years. Right now, he says he’s ready to get back to winning majors, but he’s two steps away. He’s played well, sure, but the next step is contending, and once he gets there, then he can talk about winning again.

Passov: Tough, if honest talk from Rory. Confidence begets confidence — but it all starts with results, not chatter. If the putts start dropping again, he’s long enough, and great enough, to stand with anyone in golf. If they don’t, we’ll all be stuck in what-might-have-been land.

Shipnuck: I agree with Sean. Rory has been teasing us for long enough. Enough talk, time to deliver again.

Bamberger: Agree with you all, except I want to thank him for the chatter. It’s almost out of the Ali playbook. It’s refreshing.

4. In the EurAsia Cup, a team event that pits the best Europeans against their Asian counterparts, the Europeans trailed throughout before winning eight of the 12 Sunday singles matches to take the title, 14 to 10. Given the Euro squad is largely what the Americans will face at the Ryder Cup in Paris later this year, can we take anything away from this sneak preview?

Sens: Yes. We can take a whole bucket of nothing. As has been noted countless times by players and pundits alike, the Ryder Cup is a beast of its own. No other pressure like it. And certainly not the pressure of the EurAsia Cup.

Zak: Basically nothing. No Rory, Sergio or Rose playing, which would be three of the Euros best four players in Paris. If anything, it was nice to see some of the names who could add to the last few spots of the roster — guys like Paul Dunne or Tyrrell Hatton. They’re really good players, certainly good enough to steal a point in Sunday singles. But alas, this took place on a different continent and at least nine months in advance of the Ryder Cup.

Passov: A nice win by Europe, for whatever that’s worth, but I’m with Josh and Sean on this one. This wasn’t exactly a powerhouse team from Asia they defeated, either. We can take away that captain Thomas Bjorn gets emotional at trophy ceremonies.

Shipnuck: The Euro depth was definitely impressive. To have a chance in Paris they need strong play from Alex Noren, Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton, who hold lofty positions in the World Ranking but will be Ryder rookies. All three delivered singles wins and looked good throughout the week. Europe also needs a return to form by Belgian Bomber Thomas Pieters, who also came on strong at the EurAsia. This is setting up as a simply epic Ryder Cup.

Bamberger: It can only be helpful, like the American victory at the Presidents Cup. Not not very helpful.

5. Brandel Chamblee called Dustin Johnson’s near-ace on the 433-yard par-4 12th hole that led to a tap-in eagle during the final round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions — which helped DJ to an eight-stroke victory — the “greatest shot ever hit.” Do you agree with Chamblee and, if not, what gets your vote?

Sens: I confess that my memory isn’t Rainman-ish enough to have all of history’s shots recorded. But I’d take Oosthuizen’s double-eagle on the 2nd at Augusta over DJ’s drive any day. And I’m sure there are many, many more. Hogan’s one-iron at Merion? Bob Tway’s bunker hole-out to win the PGA. My buddy’s second shot on the par-5 2nd hole on the West Course at Royal Melbourne many moons ago. Smoked a 3-wood from 240. Two hops and in for a double-eagle. DJ shmee-Jay.

Shipnuck: I’m a fan of hyperbole but if we’re talking about long, straight drives, Palmer’s opening blast on the final round of the 1960 U.S. Open has to be the king of the category. Jack’s one-iron at the ’72 U.S. Open? Tiger’s pitch-in on 16 at Augusta? Padraig’s 5-wood on the 71st hole at Birkdale? We can go on and on. DJ’s shot was incredible and a sign of the times but he was already cruising to victory in a mostly meaningless tournament; pressure and history is what makes a shot truly great.

Passov: This has been a fun debate. I think I understand Brandel’s perspective, in that (perhaps) there’s never been a shot of such a great distance that was so perfectly executed by a leader of a big-time golf tournament in a final round. Still, I’m more persuaded by the addition of degree of difficulty to the equation — both the technical skill and imagination required — and the circumstances involving the player and the tournament. And then there’s the eye/smell/taste test: Did the shot make you jump out of your chair, goosebumps, hair stand up, yell out loud? Back in 2004, I voted for Tiger’s six-iron from the sand to clinch the 2000 Canadian Open, and I once picked Watson’s chip-in at the 71st at Pebble to win the 1982 U.S. Open, but by my own evolved standards, I have to go with Jack Nicklaus’s near-ace with a five-iron at the 70th hole at the 1986 Masters. For the guy who was supposedly over the hill, this was the greatest comeback and greatest charge by the best golfer of all-time in golf’s greatest tournament.

Zak: We all know Brandel’s schtick by now: commit to an opinion and stick with it (stubbornly, if that’s what it takes). I can respect it, but I don’t have to agree with it, and nor should you! DJ’s shot was great, but I kind of wish there was a greater layer of difficulty to it (other than gravity). Shots like the one Tiger hit in the dark at Firestone, out of the damp sand at the Canadian Open, or the chip at Augusta were all more inherently difficult than Dustin picking a huge target in the distance and swinging away.

Bamberger: Sarazen’s two, April 7, 1935, fourth round of the Masters, par-5 15th with a 4-wood from 235 yards. He won in an 18-hole playoff the next day. You gotta win.

6. Our Travelin’ Joe revealed the 10 course openings he is most looking forward to in 2018. What golf experience would you most like to check off your bucket list this year?

Sens: I’ve walked the Old Course many times but somehow have found a way to never play it. That’s the obvious place to start.

Zak: Man, it’s too bad Josh beat me to it, but I desperately want to play the Old Course. Just once is all. Enough to see the legendary holes, the clubhouse, the town, etc., and commit it to memory, so I can brag about it to everyone else who hasn’t played it yet.

Passov: Both of you MUST get to and ‘round the Old Course. It’s the beating heart of the game of golf. I practically hyperventilated on the 1st tee back in 1992. These days, I breathe hard on every 1st tee. I’ve still got a few places to check off my life list, but two courses that weren’t on my most anticipated brand new courses of 2018 list are “do-overs” — essentially new courses on the terrain of an existing course — that I’m really excited to see. First up is Pinehurst No. 4. They already had a pretty strong Tom Fazio design, so the expectation is that the new Gil Hanse creation will knock it out of the park. Another much-anticipated do-over is Ireland’s Adare Manor, an inland course that previously housed a Robert Trent Jones Sr. design that had hosted Irish Opens. Tom Fazio’s re-do for legendary Irish entrepreneur J.P. McManus is striving to be the Augusta National of Europe. We shall see — or at least I hope I do.

Shipnuck: I am very much looking forward to my first hole-in-one. Of course, I say that every year.

Bamberger: I hope to return to the West Palm Beach municipal course with my friend John Garrity and if he chooses to write something about his experiences there, so much the better.